The Stumbling Start Of Saint Olaf’s Conquest Of Norway

 

Olaf Haraldsson, a young Viking and mercenary with a claim to the Norwegian throne, returned to Norway around 1014 or 1015 at an opportune political moment. Since the year 1000, Norway had been dominated by Jarl Eirik Hakonarson, who had both Danish and Swedish backing. The Jarl had left Norway to join the campaigns of two successive Danish kings, Sweyn Forkbeard and Canute in England, and during his absence, the jarl’s son, Hakon Eiriksson, was tasked with maintaining the family’s influence in Norway. King Sweyn Forkbeard died in 1014, leaving his heir, Canute, with succession crises all over the empire of the Danes—Canute’s brother, Harald II, claimed Denmark and King Æthelred the Unready returned to England shortly after Sweyn’s death. Therefore, Canute had military might, but little in the way of secure land. The Norwegian Jarl Eirik stayed with Canute and helped the Danes reassert power over England. For his aid to Canute’s cause, Jarl Eirik would eventually be named as the Earl of Northumbria. Yet, in devoting himself to English events, Jarl Eirik also neglected politics in Norway, giving tempting opportunities to ambitious Norwegian noblemen, such as Olaf Haraldsson.

Olaf, like Jarl Eirik, had been spending a great deal of time in Britain. He is known to have joined forces with Viking armies in Britain from 1009-1011/1012, then he switched sides and apparently served as a mercenary for a time with the Anglo-Saxon King Æthelred the Unready. He finally abandoned England in 1013, when Sweyn Forkbeard launched his conquest of England. According to the sagas, Olaf Haraldsson may have helped Æthelred the Unready return to England after Sweyn Forkbeard’s death in 1014. Nevertheless, unlike Jarl Eirik, the political upheaval caused by King Sweyn’s death did not pull Olaf Haraldsson’s attention toward Britain; instead, the temporary fracturing of Danish power and the inattention of Jarl Eirik encouraged him to return home to Norway.

Around 1014 or 1015, Olaf Haraldsson set sail for his homeland with a loyal band of well-equipped warriors. As the story goes, they made their first landfall on the island of Selje, which was, at that time, called Sæla, or Luck. Olaf’s followers proclaimed that the site of their landing was an omen of great things to come, and their leader basked in the praises and saber-rattling of the moment. Yet, Olaf’s experience on Selje would soon take an ungraceful turn, threatening to make null and void all of the good omens provided by the island’s lucky name.

As the warriors continued to discuss the good-omened nature of their anchorage, the party began to disembark onto the island. As the group left their ships, however, an event reportedly occurred that would have made the whole party gasp with concern. According to legend, when Olaf Haraldsson took his very first step onto the island, he carelessly put his foot on an especially slick patch of clay. His foot slid as if on ice, sending poor Olaf into an arm-flailing stumble. The Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241) claimed that the nobleman, “slid with one foot on a patch of clay, but steadied himself on the other knee” (HeimskringlaSaint Olaf’s Saga, chapter29). From that description, it seems that Olaf Haraldsson was able to escape the indignity of a total faceplant into the clay by frantically falling into a kneeling position. Nevertheless, since the group had been praising their good omens moments before, the incident definitely caused some raised eyebrows.

Thankfully for Olaf, a loyal companion came to his aid by proclaiming, “You fell not, sire; you set fast food on the land” (HeimskringlaSaint Olaf’s Saga, chapter29). With that quick-witted interpretation of events, the warriors were able to laugh off the ill-timed stumble, and the party returned to its previous high morale and good humor. Despite the slippery start, Olaf Haraldsson was able to successfully press his claim to the Kingdom of Norway by the end of 1015.  He became known as King Olaf II, or Saint Olaf.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Viking Ship illustration for the Heimskringla, by Halfdan Egedius (1877–1899), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

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